Though there are still some discrepancies as to who is responsible, officials in Bayou la Batre are concerned a lack of adequate fire suppression at Anna F. Booth Elementary School has created a dangerous situation.
The Utilities Board of Bayou la Batre, which has been embroiled in legal conflict with city leaders for nearly a year, manages the area’s water system. However, in July, questions about whether the management of the system required the board to maintain the city’s fire hydrants were brought up in a complaint made by Fire Chief John Wiggins.
Wiggins also brought the issues at Booth Elementary before the City Council during its Jan. 8 meeting. According to Wiggins, the fire department discovered a problem with the water pressure near the school while suppressing wildfires in the woods behind the building twice in November.
“We sent a crew out to check the (fire) plugs — because the fire got closer to the school than I wanted it to — and we found there was not enough water coming out of the plug to fill our supply,” Wiggins told councilors. “On Dec. 22, I spoke with Tommy Sheffield (director of operations for the Mobile County Public School System), and he advised me their subcontractor found ‘the pressure coming directly from the Bayou la Batre Utilities Board’s water system is insufficient to operate the school’s sprinklers.’”
But Sheffield told Lagniappe that’s not entirely the case. He said the school system, as it often does when it builds in rural areas, installed a “jockey pump” inside the building at Booth. According to Sheffield, the pump would energize the sprinkler system if the water pressure happened to be low, but the low pressure in the Utility Board’s own force mains could cause a problem if firefighters needed to access additional water from the city’s hydrants.
Wiggins said attempts to fix the safety issue before students returned to school Jan. 5 were unsuccessful, but he didn’t say whether any attempt was made to bring the problem up to the Utilities Board. Addressing the City Council, he said the present situation “is not safe.”
According to Wiggins, tests of the water pressure near the school indicated it was nearly 100 pounds lower than it should be.
“The city now has knowledge of this problem, so we can’t do nothing,” said legal counsel Kasee Heisterhagen, sitting in for city attorney Bill Wasden. “Either we have a fire watch until the facility is safe, or no kids (can go) into the building.”
As a response, the council cast a unanimous vote to allocate funds for a fire watch “as long as the building is occupied,” until the issue is revolved. Wiggins told Lagniappe two firefighters were on standby at Booth during school hours Jan. 9 and Jan. 12. He said the decision costs the city an estimated $300 per day.
Several exchanges have taken place between lawyers for the Utilities Board and the city since problem with city’s hydrants were first disputed in July, and those arguments remain a large part of the situation at Booth.
According to Utilities Board Executive Director Michael McClantoc, no one from the city attempted to reach out to the board about the fire suppression problems at the school as of Jan. 12. But he also said tests conducted by Utility Board employees show the system is working as it should.
Asked about the school board’s knowledge and involvement in the problem, McClantoc said he’d also spoken with Sheffield and was told everything about the fire suppression system was “adequate.”
“Everything is good,” he said. “I know they wouldn’t let those kids in the school if there was any possibility they didn’t’ have fire protection.”
Meanwhile, Wiggins said even if the sprinkler system was operational, the remaining water pressure could be insufficient to fill the trucks needed to fight a fire, if one were to occur at the school.
“We have a pre-plan for our school, so we’re going to lay our lines the way we would normally, and see after the system is charged how much water we’ll actually have left,” Wiggins said. “For the time being, we’re going to keep a fire watch while the students are in the building. We’ll make a decision on whether to continue that after the next tests.”
Sheffield said separate tests by the Utilities Board and the school board’s sprinkler system contractor show Wiggins’ concerns about the residual pressure could be valid in the event of structural fire at the school.
“They’re aware they have an issue now,” Sheffield said. “They have low water pressure in Bayou la Batre.”
Ramirez: Mayor ‘went against council’s wishes’
During its December meeting, the Bayou la Batre City Council accepted the resignation of Assistant City Clerk Chad Seaman, but at least some council members think Mayor Brett Dugan went against the council’s wishes when he chose not to waive Seaman’s two-week notice and accept his immediate resignation in “good standing.”
Though initial personnel matters are typically not discussed openly, Seaman requested to speak about his resignation during a public meeting.
Evidently, Seaman submitted his resignation Dec. 12, citing “non-self-imposed hardships,” which he told Lagniappe were medically related. Because of those circumstances, he was unable to give a proper two-weeks notice, but he asked the city to waive that requirement.
According to Rule 3.12 of the Mobile County Personnel Board’s laws and rules, the failure to give proper notice prohibits an employee from rehire and qualifies the resignation to be documented as “not in good standing.”
In written correspondence with Lagniappe, Dungan said he advised Seaman Dec. 12 to reconsider his resignation, and said the city was willing to offer him a leave of absence, which Seaman declined.
“City Attorney Bill Wasden advised council members that Personnel Board requires two weeks notice,” Dungan wrote. “Contrary to what was said at the Jan. 8 council meeting by some councilors, no vote was taken concerning Chad Seaman’s two-weeks.”
Dungan was referring to a comment by Councilman George Ramirez, who said Dugan’s actions “went against the council’s wishes.” But other council members were also surprised to learn Seaman’s resignation wasn’t accepted in good standing.
As Dungan asked the council for a motion to adjourn, Councilmember Ida Mae Coleman said, “this is not the way to do things.”
“If you’re going to do something, do it decent and in order. You can’t push it under the rug,” Coleman said. “Chad, as far as I know you did leave in good standing.”
An email from Dungan’s assistant Wanda Overstreet to the personnel board Jan. 1, after the council had voted to accept Seaman’s resignation, said, “the mayor does not want to waive the two-week notice. Please let me know if you need a letter stating this.”
Still, the personnel board extended an option to waive the two-weeks notice, pending Dungan’s approval. But Dungan said the city scrambled to manage Seaman’s tasks after the sudden resignation, while Seaman said he had maintained almost daily contact with city employees to help assure a smooth transition.
“Mayor, this action on your part, in opposition of what your council unanimously voted, I feel is malicious and a personal attack that has placed additional hardships on my family,” Seaman said. “I gave eight years to this job. I simply asked you for 14 days.”